ACT News

Some flawed Canberra apartment towers cheaper to rebuild than fix, expert says

The ACT government has told Canberra's multistorey unit block builders and developers to lift their game after claims some projects were so shoddy they would be cheaper to demolish and rebuild than to repair.

Ross Taylor, a consultant who has been working with Access Canberra to develop a more streamlined dispute resolution model for builders and unit owners, said he had been called in on one project where repairs just weren't economic.

Reading the riot act: Construction occupations registrar Mark McCabe says he will take a hard line with builders who ...
Reading the riot act: Construction occupations registrar Mark McCabe says he will take a hard line with builders who fail to prevent faults or work with clients to find mutually agreed solutions. Photo: Melissa Adams

Valued well in excess of $50 million and with over 150 units, the development's big issues included water leaks, a cracking facade and poor structural integrity.

"While attempts are still being made to have the builder return to carry out the necessary repairs, this seems unlikely," he said. "The main option remaining is demolition and redevelopment."

Mr Taylor said although the development, which could not be named for legal reasons, was an extreme instance, it was probably not unique.

"Over the past four years we have seen a pattern of defects emerging that are endemic to residential multistorey buildings in Canberra," he said.

Advertisement

"The primary cause of defects, particularly leaks and facade defects, is poor design."

Construction occupations registrar Mark McCabe said with 10,000 units set to be approved by the ACT government between 2015 and 2019, it was imperative quality improved.

"We have been working with Mr Taylor and industry to tackle this from the front end as well as the back end," he said.

Both men said it was cheaper to prevent problems or fix them during construction than after jobs were finished and disputes went to court.

"The lawyers are [then] the biggest winners," Mr McCabe said.

Mr Taylor said work costing a dollar if it was done properly cost $100 to fix if it had to be repaired after going to court.

An expert in defect prevention and rectification, Mr Taylor worked with Access Canberra to develop a Collaborative Defect Resolution model to promote negotiation and arbitration as an alternative to litigation.

He said the CDR was a game changer that put Canberra ahead of almost every other jurisdiction.

"The legal option is still preserved if one of the parties refuses to co-operate, however."

Mr McCabe said builders who failed to either prevent faults or work with clients to find mutually agreed solutions would be read the riot act.

"Where people won't collaborate, builders in particular, we're going to be taking a particularly hard line," he said.

"We are looking at a couple at the moment. There will always be builders in that [unco-operative] bracket and they will continue to get our close attention."

The real change was to the "front end": preventing defects in the first place.

"Where is the front end?" Mr McCabe said. "You can argue it goes back to the design. That's where we're putting a lot of our focus."

Access Canberra now encourages designers, builders and specialist trades to talk to each other to identify design defects before they are set in cement.

"Waterproofing is a classic example," Mr McCabe said. "What goes wrong with water ingress into these multistorey apartments is often a design flaw rather than in how water membranes are laid."

As the construction occupations registrar he could direct certain classes of building licence holders to have specific training to make them more aware of problem areas.

"We're now asking the industry, 'What training do we need to give builders to make sure they understand the design concerns?'."

Mr Taylor said many of the problems he found stemmed from builders and tradesmen, with no formal design experience, having to solve problems on the spot when the plans were inadequate.

The developer was the real front end as they decided how much was going to be spent and what the return should be.

"Setting the budget creates the landscape in which the design and construction process is then played out," he said. "The developer has the most influence over the design.

"They are also, of all the people involved in the project, the least accountable. Once the units are sold it is not their problem."